From the author of the acclaimed novel A Pigeon and a Boy comes a charming tale of family ties, over-the-top housekeeping, and the sport of storytelling in Nahalal, the village of Meir Shalev’s birth. Here we meet Shalev’s amazing Grandma Tonia, who arrived in Palestine by boat from Russia in 1923 and lived in a constant state of battle with what she viewed as the family’s biggest enemy in their new land: dirt.
Grandma Tonia was never seen without a cleaning rag over her shoulder. She received visitors outdoors. She allowed only the most privileged guests to enter her spotless house. Hilarious and touching, Grandma Tonia and her regulations come richly to life in a narrative that circles around the arrival into the family’s dusty agricultural midst of the big, shiny American sweeper sent as a gift by Great-uncle Yeshayahu (he who had shockingly emigrated to the sinful capitalist heaven of Los Angeles!). America, to little Meir and to his forebears, was a land of hedonism and enchanting progress; of tempting luxuries, dangerous music, and degenerate gum-chewing; and of women with painted fingernails. The sweeper, a stealth weapon from Grandpa Aharon’s American brother meant to beguile the hardworking socialist household with a bit of American ease, was symbolic of the conflicts and visions of the family in every respect.
The fate of Tonia’s “svieeperrr”—hidden away for decades in a spotless closed-off bathroom after its initial use—is a family mystery that Shalev determines to solve. The result, in this cheerful translation by Evan Fallenberg, is pure delight, as Shalev brings to life the obsessive but loving Tonia, the pioneers who gave his childhood its spirit of wonder, and the grit and humor of people building ever-new lives.
This is how it was: Several years ago, on a hot summer day, I rose from a pleasant afternoon nap and made a cup of coffee for myself, and while I stood sipping from the mug I noticed that everyone was looking strangely at me and holding back their laughter. When I bent down to put my sandals on I discovered the reason: my toenails, all ten of them, had been painted with shiny red nail polish.
“What is this?” I cried. “Who painted my toenails?”
From the other side of the porch door, which stood ajar, came the sound of giggling that I recognized at once from previous incidents.
“I know who did this,” I said, raising my voice. “I’ll find you and I’ll catch you and I’ll paint your noses and your ears with the very same shiny red polish you used on my toes, and I’ll manage to do it all before my coffee turns cold!”
The giggles became laughter that confirmed my suspicions. While I lay sleeping, my brother’s two little daughters, Roni and Naomi, had stolen in and painted my toenails. Later they would tell me that the younger of the two had done four nails while her older sister had done the other six. They had hoped I would not notice and that I would walk out in public, only to be scorned and ridiculed. But now that their scheme had been unmasked they burst into the room and pleaded: “Don’t take it off, don’t, it’s really pretty.”
I told them that I, too, thought it was really pretty, but that there was a problem: I had been invited to “an important event” where I was expected to speak, but I could not appear before the crowd with painted nails, since it was summer and in summer I wear sandals.
The girls said that they were familiar with both matters—the important event and my custom of wearing sandals—and that this was precisely the reason they had done what they did.
I told them that I would go to any other important event with shiny red toenails but not to this important event. And that was because of the crowd that would gather there, a crowd no sane man would appear before with painted toenails—and red ones, no less.
The event we were talking about was the inauguration of the old arms cache used by the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization that operated in Palestine during the British Mandate. The cache had been built on a farm in the village of Nahalal and disguised to look like a cowshed cesspool. In my novel The Blue Mountain I had described an arms cache that never existed in a village that never existed in the Jezreel Valley, but my arms cache was also built and disguised exactly the same way. After the book was published, readers began to show up on the real farm in the real village, asking to see the real cache.
Rumor passed by word of mouth, the number of visitors grew and became a nuisance, and the owners of the property were smart enough to make the best of their situation. They renovated the cache, set up a small visitors’ center, and thus added a new stream of income to their farm. That day, when my brother’s two young daughters painted my toenails with red polish, was the day the renovated arms cache was being inaugurated, and I had been invited as one of the speakers at the ceremony.
“Now bring some nail polish remover and get this pretty stuff off me,” I told Roni and Naomi. “And please hurry up because I have to get going already!”
The two refused. “Go like that!” they said.
I sat down and explained to them that this was a particularly manly event, that there would be generations of fighters from the Jezreel Valley in attendance, elders from the Haganah, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Palmach. Men of the sword and the plowshare, men who had bent spears into pruning shears and vice versa. In short, girls, these were people who would not react favorably to men with red polish on their toenails.
But Naomi and Roni paid no attention to my pleas. “What do you care?” they cried. “You said yourself it’s pretty.”
“If you don’t take it off I’ll wear shoes!” I threatened. “Nobody will see your red nail polish, and that’ll be that!”
“You’re afraid!” they exclaimed. “You’re afraid what they’ll say about you in the village.”
Those words took effect at once. Without knowing it the two little girls had hit a soft underbelly. Anyone familiar with members of the old-time collective agricultural movement, anyone who has been upbraided by them, knows that in small villages eyes take everything in and comments are made with regularity and rumors take off and land like cranes in a sown field. All the more so in places whose pedigree is famed and illustrious, like Nahalal’s. Here, the standards are more stringent, and anyone who leaves the path of the straight and narrow, who veers left or right, up or down—even a single mistake made in one’s childhood—is not forgotten. Especially someone considered odd, eccentric, meshugah, or an underachiever, which is the complete opposite of mutzlach, one of the loftiest expressions of excellence the village bestows upon its most fortunate sons and daughters, those blessed with wisdom, industriousness, leadership qualities, and community spirit.
But after many years in the city the combination of the words “what” and “they’ll say about you” and “in the village” had lost some of their power and threat. So I reconsidered and decided to take up the gauntlet or, more accurately, the sandals. I put them on, thrust the notes for the speech I had prepared into my pocket, and set out for the inauguration of the old arms cache with my red-painted toenails exposed. The entire household eyed me—some with mirth, others with regret, some with schadenfreude, others with suspicion: Would I return to be reunited with my home and family? And in what condition?
Here I must admit and confess that despite my display of courage upon leaving the house, I became more and more anxious the closer I got to the event. By the time I arrived at the site I was absolutely beside myself. I silently prayed that no one would notice my toes, and my prayers were answered. No one made a single comment, nobody said a thing. On the contrary, everyone was warm and cordial. My hand was crushed by bold handshakes, my shoulder bent by manly slaps on the back. Even my short speech went off well and pleased the crowd—or so it seemed to me.
Naturally, I made metaphorical use of the arms cache as an image of memory and what is hidden in the depths of a person’s soul. In the manner of writers, I prattled on about that which is above the surface and that which is below, that which the eye sees and that which it does not, and from there it was a short road to the tried-and-true literary merchandise of “reality” and the “relationship between truth and fiction in belles letters” and a lot of other fodder that writers blithely use to sell their wares.
After I had finished speaking and descended from the small stage and was able to breathe in relief, one of the daughters of the family on whose property the arms cache had been built approached and asked to exchange a few words with me in private. She thanked me for my speech and said it had been just fine, but then, almost as an afterthought, she added that she wished to know which nail polish was my favorite. She said she very much liked the shade of red I used, as did two friends of hers sitting in the audience who had asked her to find out.
And as that same shade of red flushed across my cheeks, the young woman hastened to add that she herself had no problem with it, that she even found it rather nice, something she had always felt was missing in the village and could be a happy harbinger of things to come. However, to others in the audience my appearance at the event had raised some reservations.
“I thought no one had noticed,” I said.
“Not noticed? It’s all anyone’s been talking about,” she said. “But take consolation in the fact that no one was surprised. I even heard someone say, ‘What do you want from the guy? He got it from Tonia. She was crazy in just the same way. That’s the way it is in their family.’ ”
Excerpted from My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner by Meir Shalev. Copyright © 2011 by Meir Shalev. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meir Shalev is one of Israel’s most celebrated novelists. He has received many awards for his work, including the National Jewish Book Award and Israel’s Brenner Prize, both for A Pigeon and a Boy.